A day of urban exploration takes a sinister turn.

Karen slid the fiberboard away from the hole in the wall behind the old Fillmore strip mall. She knelt by the opening and peered in. She pulled her head back and smiled at the boy behind her. “Here it is!”

He didn’t look nearly as impressed. “It’s a hole. Very impressive.”

“Oh come on, Nick. It’s exciting! Who knows what we’ll find in there!”

“Oh, I don’t know… Rats, rabid dogs, hobo piss…” Karen ignored him and crawled through the opening. He rolled his eyes. “Guess I’m finding out.”

Karen shined the light from her smartphone in Nick’s face as he crawled into the room with her. He squinted his eyes and banged his head on the shelving above him. “OW! Seriously?”

She giggled. “Klutz!” She playfully shoved him aside and reached through the hole for the fiberboard.

“Worried about tipping your hand to the homeless people?”

Karen made a face in the glow of her phone. “Cops go by here all the time, jackass.”

“Nice.” Nick stood, squinting into the gutted clothing store. “Why am I here, again?”

“Because you expressed interest in my hobbies, jack…”

“Ass… Yes, I know.” He walked towards the front of the store. “It’s brighter than I thought it would be.”

“They usually are. Natural light…” She pointed up. “…From skylights. It saves money and is more welcoming.”

“Well, it didn’t save them enough, did it?” He smirked. He grabbed the gate pulled down over the store’s entrance. “Game over. Let’s go home.”

Karen stuck her tongue out at him. She grabbed the gate and yanked it upwards. It rose halfway before it caught on something and stuck fast.

“The website said explorers broke it weeks ago.”

“Was that before or after they chewed through the wall?”

“Ha ha.” Karen ducked under the gate and into the mall.

It was deathly quiet. The sunlight pouring through the large front windows of the strip mall was shaped by the thin, shifting fog of dust that hung in the air. Nick pointed at the windows. “Oh, good! The cops won’t event have to get out of their car to see us!”

Karen rolled her eyes. “That’s why we stay away from that side of the mall. Duh!” She gave him a shove and walked past him.

Nick hesitated. Karen turned back around. “Look, if you don’t want to do this, then just leave. I can take care of myself.”

“Whatever. I’m fine. I just don’t want to get in trouble with the cops again. My old man will kill me.”

“Then stay away from the windows, and follow me.” She turned and walked away, signaling him to follow with her finger.

They slowly walked towards the middle of the mall, being careful to stay towards the back. Nick halfheartedly peered into the stripped-down stores as they passed. Karen stopped occasionally to take pictures with her smartphone.

“There’s the middle!” Karen pointed excitedly to a large, open area. In the middle was a low wall that formed a ring. A handful of dying trees were languishing in the soil-filled middle. Weathered benches faced outward at regular intervals around the wall. Most were broken.

“And there’s the map!” Karen looked carefully through the filthy front windows, then dashed over to the aging kiosk. She knelt below the map and took a smiling selfie.

Nick followed her over to one of the benches facing away from the front windows and sat down. He smirked as a cloud of dust floated up between them. “What interests you so much about a place like this, anyway?”

“I feel like Indiana Jones! It’s exciting, exploring a place abandoned for years. Besides… This one’s supposed to be haunted.” Karen smiled devilishly.

Nick snorted. “Haunted… Seriously? You believe in that?”

“Well, kind of, I guess. I looked it up. There was a murder here, back in the nineties. The guy was some devil worshiper, or something.”

“You know, that’s some real bad horror movie crap right there.” He shook his head, smiling. “I gotta take a piss. I’ll let you know if I find any ghosts.”

Karen punched him in the shoulder. “The restrooms are on the other side of the mall, you know.”

“Who said I was going to use the restroom?” He grinned.

“Seriously? That’s gross!”

Nick stood and shrugged. “So is this place. See you soon.” He winked and walked off.

“Boys,” she mumbled to herself. Karen looked through the pictures on her phone. She picked out one she liked and tried to open her social app. “No signal? Seriously?”

She put her phone away and stared off in the direction Nick had walked. “What, is he taking a shit, or something?” She shouted. “Did you fall in!”

Karen’s voice echoed down the length of the abandoned mall. There was no reply. “Nick?” Still nothing.

She stood up and dusted off her backside. “I swear, if that little shit tries to scare me…” She started off towards the other side of the mall, hugging herself.

“Nick?” Silence. She continued walking. Something rustled in the store to her right. “Got you! You better not try to scare me.”

She peered through the broken gate of the old toy store. There was nothing inside, save for swollen, discolored ceiling tiles littering the floor. “What the hell, then…”

A mouse darted out from under a pile of ceiling tiles, squeaking all the way. Karen cried out, stamping her feet. “Damn it!”

She nervously laughed at herself. She took a deep breath and looked further down the mall. “Damn it, Nick! Where are you?”

Karen peered into the next store. “I bet he left me, the ass…” One of the trees in the middle of the mall rustled loudly. She spun around, grabbing at her chest.

“How in the hell…” The half-dead branches were still settling. She started back towards the benches. “I should never have told you about that murder!” She smiled.

She heard something dripping as she approached the trees. “Oh, gross! Are you pissing over there?” The dripping slowed. “Come on, answer me! Don’t be an asshole.”

Karen stormed around to the far side of the trees. She stopped dead. The blood drained from her face. She began to scream.

Nick was hung by his neck from one of the dying trees. He was shirtless. His throat had been slashed open. Bloody entrails hung from a gaping wound in his abdomen.

Karen stumbled backwards, still screaming, shaking her head. She stared at Nick’s corpse in disbelief. His dull, white eyes stared back. She turned and ran.

She fumbled her phone out as she went. She numbly punched 911 into the phone and hit the call button. “We’re sorry. Your call cannot be completed at this time.” She growled and hung up.

She stopped in front of the store they had gone through to enter the mall. The gate was closed. “What…” She grabbed it with both hands and lifted. It didn’t budge. “No!” She jerked up hard on it. The gate remained locked.

“This isn’t happening!” She half-screamed the words. She spun around and fell back against the gate. She looked from one end of the mall to the other, breathing heavily.

She looked to her left. One of the main entrances was a short walk down that way. Even if she couldn’t get out, if she could just get lucky and have a cop go by…

A loud crack came from somewhere behind her. She screamed and ran blindly. She slowed as she approached the entrance, then stopped.

“NO!” The glass entrance was lined from one end to the other with five-foot-tall plywood. The ground before it was still littered with broken glass. No way out. No way to see in.

She fished out her smartphone. There was still no signal. Something rustled in the old entryway. She snapped her head back up. Something dark slithered in the shadows.

Karen slowly started backing away, a shiver working up her spine. Something smooth and warm halted her progress. She screamed and dropped her phone.

She spun around. Nick took a step back. He was smiling. “Wow. Okay! I thought you weren’t scared to be alone?”

Karen looked from Nick to the trees in the distance and back again. “You’re alive… But I saw you. You were dead!” She took a step back.

The smile faded off of Nick’s face. “Oh, I’m dead, all right.” Blood began to trickle from a red line that stretched across his throat. “And now you’ll be dead, too!” His eyes turned black.

Karen turned to run. The black, twisted creature that had hid in the shadows burst forward. Its jagged, silver teeth dug into her throat. Blank, brilliant yellow eyes stared into her own as the life bled out of her.

“I tell ya, the damn city needs to get off its collective ass and force the owner to tear this place down!” The officer kicked a piece of debris out of his way. “We’re coming here what, sometimes three times a week for break-ins?”

The officer’s partner nodded. “Something like that.”

“Looters, partiers, now screamers…” The officer spotted something in the old, half-dead trees in the middle of the mall. “There you go…” He pulled his revolver. “Police!”

The two officers approached the trees, weapons pointed at the ground. They stared, unbelieving at the two corpses hanging from one of the trees. A young man, throat slashed and abdomen ripped open. A young woman, throat torn to shreds.

Something growled deeply in the shadows behind them…